Interesting article from WSJ this morning: Amazon Changed Search Algorithm in Ways That Boosted It’s Own Profits.

You don’t have to read the article to get this gist. Some thoughts in no particular order…

  1. The first principle listed on Amazon’s site is Customer Obsession. Specifically, “work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust.” It seems a stretch to find integrity with that value in this situation.
  2. It appears that the search team was told to modify the algorithm to increase profitability, leading to this dilemma. But… we’re going to make the very small assumption that this algorithm was built with machine learning and trained to optimize a set of metrics. The algorithm team added profitability to the desired outcomes, but the specific nuances of the algorithm (by nature of machine learning) we’re probably unknown to the team before and after this change. There’s a good chance the previous search function brought similar detriments to the customer, but were unknown to the designers. In dealing with software of this kind, you can analyze the outcome, but seeing how the sausage is actually made is, I believe, impossible. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful, but we’ve got to be careful with unintended consequences. The obvious example is social media feeds that are optimized for engagement. Unfortunately, seeing radical ideas (whether you agree with them or not) increases engagement time and conscious-less computers happily promote them.
  3. How much different is a grocery store that preserves it’s best shelf space for their own brands. For example, if Costco placed Kirkland brand batteries front and center, but Duracell’s batteries required a forklift to reach. It’s not as extreme as that example, but most retailers promote their profitable products in some manner.
  4. Continuing off above, is the scale of Amazon as a distributor enough to make a reasonable antitrust argument? Does their position as the #1 retail search engine mean that any manipulation which meaningfully detriments competition is illegal? Searching Google for a new phone pulls up their Pixel first. I didn’t expect otherwise, but is that an issue?
  5. As we outsource more and more of our decisions to algorithms, these sort of issues are only going to get harder.